Fighting: the basics
Disagreements between brothers and sisters are very common. They often start when children see a situation as unfair, or when children are trying to assert what they think are their rights.
Sometimes disagreements happen because children see the same situation in different ways. For example, an older child might be teasing a younger sibling in what he thinks is a funny way, but the younger child might not like it.
And sometimes siblings get into conflict as they compete with each other for parental attention or approval.
The good news
These kinds of disagreement are part of growing up in a family. In fact, they can be a great chance for your children to practise the social skills they’ll need as adults. Fighting will decrease as your children grow and develop better social skills.
When disagreements between brothers and sisters get worked out fairly and without anyone getting hurt, children start to build problem-solving skills such as negotiating. They also learn the importance of seeing another person’s point of view and respecting other people’s rights, feelings and belongings.
One of the keys to fewer fights is what you do when kids aren’t fighting. This includes showing them how to use good social and emotional skills such as managing angry feelings, reminding them about the importance of negotiating and helping them learn to play fair.
Learning to live together in a family takes some working out, and conflict is very normal (but not always easy to live with!). To find out more about how to reduce fighting in the long term, read our articles on preventing fights
and handling fights
How temperament affects fighting
Some kids seem to fight more than others. This might be because of their temperaments – inborn parts of their personalities that make them more inclined to act impulsively (without thinking) or aggressively.
Humans have a naturally aggressive side, and fighting is sometimes a normal expression of this. Some people are quicker to anger than others, or less able to control their angry feelings. It’s not always easy for grown-ups to resolve conflict without resorting to bad behaviour. Imagine how much harder it is for kids.
Children aren’t born knowing how to handle disagreements. But all children can learn the skills they need to reduce fighting.
How environment affects fighting
Children learn how to sort out differences by watching and copying behaviour they see in their environments.
So if children see you sorting out your differences in positive ways, they’ll learn to behave this way too. This is called modelling good behaviour. You can model behaviour such as cooperating, staying calm when you’re angry, checking the facts before you act, reacting in a way that’s appropriate to the situation and listening to other people’s points of view.
Kids learn from negative behaviour too. If you tend to discipline by smacking, your children are more likely to smack their brothers, sisters, friends – or even you. They’re also more likely to choose fighting if:
- they constantly see people being aggressive towards each other, particularly their parents, bigger brothers and sisters, and friends
- they get what they want by pushing, shoving or fighting
- their parents don’t set consistent limits on fighting or aggression
- they see lots of violence on TV, at the movies and in video games.
Children soak up these practical lessons from a very young age. But they might not start cooperating and sharing before they’re two. And they might be three before you see these lessons really being put to use.
How age and skills affect fighting
The way kids handle conflict is partly determined by their ages and skill levels. Aggressive behaviour is common in young children. This usually changes as they grow and learn better ways of resolving conflict.
- tend to fight over objects, like toys, and become very frustrated if something they want is taken away
- struggle with taking turns, and don’t yet understand the reason for rules and instructions
- don’t have the ability to reason with other children or explain how they feel, so are more likely to use physical acts like pushing to show anger.
- starting to cooperate, share and take turns – all of which will eventually lead to fewer fights
- still likely to need support, reminders and positive feedback.
- starting to master skills like sharing, taking turns, compromising and talking through options
- much better at resolving issues without needing grown-ups to step in, although they still need encouragement.
- tend to protest verbally more than younger children
- are becoming much more social, and typically engage in group activities that involve cooperation, negotiation and compromise.
How parents feel
Fights can start as early as the toddler years. If you feel like you’re struggling with your child’s fighting, you’re not alone. Fights are a common reason for families to seek professional help. Even petty squabbles can create a lot of stress for parents.
Parents say they want to manage fighting so that children develop the social skills needed to build relationships and play well together. Parents also want to protect younger children in the family, and manage any sibling jealousy.
If your children’s fighting is frequent, is physically violent or causes you great distress, you might find it helpful to consult a qualified professional such as a paediatrician or psychologist.
What research tells us about fighting
- Boys and girls fight at about the same level, but they tend to fight in different ways.
- Closeness in age contributes. Research confirms that the closer siblings are in age, the more they tend to fight.
Parents aren’t to blame, but they do have an influence. The amount of fighting between children is affected by their temperaments, skills, ages – and the way their parents behave.
- Equality matters. Fighting is more likely when kids feel they’re not being treated fairly. If they feel singled out or blamed, they’re more likely to act aggressively towards their brothers or sisters.
Sometimes ignoring fighting isn’t the best option. But too much parental attention can also reinforce fighting. If you give fighting lots of attention, it might actually encourage the fighting behaviour. Learning when to step in is important.